The hearth of Taoism is China. It is difficult to define Taoist followers and is therefore also difficult to estimate the number of followers and where they live. In China, there are approximately 400,000 million people practicing Chinese folk religions. Worldwide, the range of Taoist believers is estimated between 20 and 50 million. Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people including mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Malaysia. It is safe to say that Eastern Asia has been influenced by Taoism and most Taoists are concentrated in this area; however, there is a small population in the western hemisphere.
Taoism never really diffused out of China, but spread throughout China. Taoists leaders believe people should come to them if they want to convert over to Taoism and therefore, you will not see any Taoist missionaries.
Taoism is a belief based on philosophy and thought more than the worship of deities. The Chinese word “tao” means “the way.” The religion itself was influenced by shamanistic and nature religions and is also therefore, polytheistic. Three main deities are worshipped and are referred to as the “Three Pure Gods” or “Three Purities.” The beginnings of Taoism date back to prehistoric times. There is no founding date, although analysts approximate it to be somewhere between 206 B.C.E. and 220 C.E. According to Livia Kohn, a professor of religion at Boston University, “Taoism as a religion began in the year 142 C.E. with the revelation of the Tao to Zhang Daoling or Chang Tao-ling by the personified god of the Tao, Taishang laojun (Lao Tzu), the Highest Venerable Lord.” After Zhang Daoling had this revelation, he became the first Celestial Master and founded the first Taoist school of thought. Taoism was recognized as a religion sometime between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. With the introduction of Tao Te Ching (Taoist scripture which was written by Lao Tzu), a focus was provided to guide Taoist thinking. It became a semi-official Chinese religion during the Tang dynasty. As Confucianism gained popularity, Taoism’s popularity decreased, and changed from an official religion to a widely practiced Chiense tradition.
During the communist reign over China, the Taoists in the country were affected and were prevented from practicing their religion. This was ironic because Taoists believe that the best government is the government that doesn’t govern at all and lets the people live the way they choose. According to BBC, “Taoism was banned and its followers re-educated, with the result that the number of practicing Taoists fell by 99% in 10 years.” When the communistic reign loosened its grip on the country, a small measure of religious freedom was allowed. Taoism was once again practiced in China.
Contagious diffusion is seen with Taoism. Since the empire of China was so united under emperors, the entire country practiced extremely similar religions and believed similar things. Once Zhang Daoling founded Mount Qingcheng as the center of the empire, many other Chinese jumped on the bandwagon and became Taoists. Mount Qingcheng is still a place where many Taoists take pilgrimages. The sacred site of Mount Qingcheng is known for its mountains and sacrificial rivers. Since this religion is also extremely ethnic, Taoists can be found in many countries where Chinese have immigrated.
The religion has maintained its original concepts and it hasn’t diffused majorly around the world. The only thing that may have diffused worldwide is the symbol of yin and yang. Yin and yang represent balance in life between the negative and positive things. However, many Western cultures have simply adopted the symbol as a popular tattoo or simply an icon without knowing the meaning or Taoist background.
Many intellectual Chinese people are proponents and become followers of Taoism because of the deep roots in Chinese tradition, philosophy and values. The main objective of Taoism is to stay in harmony with the world, so many Taoists are extremely thoughtful and like to question the way of the world. Chinese who were not followers of Confucious might have also become Taoists since the two have one thing in common: they are schools of thought rather than worshipping religions.